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Kefir: Bringing Home a Little Old-World Magic

Written by Suzi Croes   
Thursday, 01 December 2011 00:00
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I live with a household of microscopic beings that contribute to my enjoyment, and nourish and enrich my health. These little beings of antiquated lineage have the ability to transform the ordinary into something much more: a drink, an elixir. They do this thanklessly, and I contribute to the dance, becoming an integral part of the process. I am grateful for the relationship I have with my microorganism friends. Kefir, cheers! Here’s to you!

Living in the modern world can be stressful. This can affect even us stay-at-home moms: The world is very different from that of our great-great-grandmothers, and our lives have become increasingly busy, with little time left for traditional, old-school nourishment. Gone are the days when multi-generational families lived and worked together, becoming a community in themselves, at the end of the day sharing a well-prepared meal and perhaps listening to stories told by their elders.

In contrast, we have been bombarded with media that show us visions of fast-paced families all bustling about, each member going his or her separate way during the day, regrouping in the evening and grabbing a readymade meal. In truth, many families already live like this. Like mothers all over the world, I strive to provide the best for my family. It is wonderful when we are able to find some bit of the old world that fits into our schedule. For me, kefir is that something— a probiotic drink that offers something for everyone.

I became interested in kefir after learning about the probiotic benefits of cultured and fermented foods through the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit group that focuses on teaching traditional nutrition. For thousands of years, people all over the world have been supporting the health of their families through cultured and fermented foods. Culturing and fermentation was a way of preserving certain foods without refrigeration, as well as boosting their nutrient value. Culturing can help provide added probiotics, micronutrients, vitamins and enzymes for better digestion.

Many cultured foods can take practice and experience to get a consistent result, but kefir is easy, even for the novice cook: It takes little time, and is versatile in the kitchen, renewable and inexpensive. I am a busy mom, and although I love to cook and have been culturing for more than a decade, it is precisely these attributes that make kefir near and dear to my heart.


Legend of the Grains

So, where did kefir come from, and what exactly is this wonder culture? The origins of kefir are somewhat shrouded in mystery. Perhaps forming by spontaneous wild fermentation, kefir has been used for more than 2,000 years by the long-lived inhabitants of the Caucasus Mountains. This extensive mountain range, the dividing line between Europe and Asia, is one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse places on Earth. The Muslim peoples of the Caucasus considered the kefir grains a gift from God, a sacred food. Grains were passed down from generation to generation; to this day, people in Tibet enjoy a breakfast of kefir cultured in yaks’ milk and flavored with salt. I cannot help but feel connected to this process when I consider that my grains come from such a long tradition of honor and care.

The precious grains, often referred to as “jeweled grains,” were brought to Russia; the legend of the journey is a story filled with romantic intrigue, involving a Caucasus prince and a beautiful girl. From there they have traveled westward ever since. The grains themselves are not true grains, but are a gelatinous matrix of bacteria consisting of various strains of friendly yeasts and lactobacilli, lipids, sugars and proteins.

There are two varieties of kefir grains. Milk kefir grains, which are cultured in a dairy medium such as cow, goat, sheep, yak, nut or soy milk, transform ordinary milk into a slightly effervescent, slightly sour beverage that is much higher in gut-friendly microorganisms than yogurt (a cultured dairy product with which most of us are familiar). Milk kefir grains are opaque, pale cream to yellow in color, and resemble cooked cauliflower. As they feed, they produce more grains over time.

 Sugar kefir grains, also called water kefir, feed on a mixture of sugar and water, often with dried fruit added for additional flavor and trace minerals. These grains are similar to milk kefir but do not have the same bacterial complexity. They are smaller in size, and transparent in appearance. Sugar kefir results in a beverage that is fizzy like soda, but unlike the highfructose corn syrup drinks on the market, this tasty treat is full of enzymes and probiotics. It’s a favorite of our children, and even the sweet neighbor kid who is a known picky eater.